Flag ban sours independence celebrations

HARARE - With helicopters instead of jet fighters zooming overhead, President Robert Mugabe marked Zimbabwe’s 37th independence anniversary on Tuesday with sour celebrations and defiance, saying the country must remain wary of Western-style democracy.

Mugabe, 93, who has ruled the country since its independence, spoke emotionally of the legacy of British rule, charging that “as we today celebrate our hard-won independence, I urge you to remain vigilant, remembering that the enemy is ever ready to pounce on any signs of laxity on our part.”

“Even as we prepare for our general elections next year, let us do so as true patriots, sons and daughters of the soil, who value the one and only precious Zimbabwe that we have,” he said.

Despite his exhortations for unwavering patriotism, Mugabe’s government has made the national flag a source of potential criminality and imprisonment.

The bumper crowd that turned up for the celebrations on Tuesday did not have the national banner as had become the norm, with many leaving their national flags home. Citizens do not want to be associated with the flag anymore after restrictions were introduced on its use. 

Nothing signified that Zimbabweans were celebrating their country’s birthday except for doddering Mugabe’s uninspiring speech and the Uhuru Cup match between football rivals Dynamos and Highlanders.

Zimbabwe Rhodesia regained its independence as Zimbabwe on April 18, 1980. The government held independence celebrations in Rufaro Stadium in Salisbury, the capital. Lord Christopher Soames, the last governor of Southern Rhodesia and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales both attended the handover ceremony where the Union Jack was lowered and replaced with the Zimbabwean flag.

This flag was officially superseded in December 1979 when Britain took interim control of the country following the Lancaster House Agreement which ended the Rhodesian bush war.

The British Union Jack was used as the official flag of the country, although de facto the Zimbabwe Rhodesia flag continued to be flown, while fresh elections were held in February 1980.

At midnight between April 17 and 18, 1980, the country was granted independence by Britain under the name Zimbabwe and a new national flag was adopted, the draft for which had been handed to the then Public Works minister Richard Hove by an unspecified designer.

The initial design did not include the Zimbabwe Bird. This was added at the suggestion of Cederic Herbert, who pointed out its uniqueness and history. The final draft went through the approval of the then Prime Minister-elect  Mugabe. The adoption of the new flag coincided with the swearing-in of Canaan Banana as the country’s new president.

The Zimbabwe Bird, used on every flag since 1968, is based on a statue discovered from the ancient ruined city of Great Zimbabwe in the country’s south-east.

The national flag of Zimbabwe consists of seven even horizontal stripes of green, gold, red and black with a white triangle containing a red 5-pointed star with a Zimbabwe Bird. The present design was adopted on April 18, 1980, when Zimbabwe won its independence from the United Kingdom. The bird symbolises the history of Zimbabwe; the red star beneath it officially stands for the nation’s aspirations but is commonly thought to symbolise socialism, and the revolutionary struggle for freedom and peace.

The increasingly unpopular government — accused of vandalising the national economy — now sees the flag as a symbol of protest after Pastor Evan Mawarire used the national flag to articulate his gripe against government, which quickly drew the attention and support of other citizens both at home and abroad.

This was deemed an act of subversion by Mugabe’s government as it accused protesters of “using the flag to whip up political emotions against the constitutionally-elected government.”

The State’s response has been to use its repressive instruments, including violence and restrictive laws.

Justice ministry permanent secretary Virginia Mabhiza has warned citizens that using the flag without the government’s permission is punishable by a fine of $300, a jail term of up to one year, or both.

Mabhiza cited Flag of Zimbabwe Act, an obscure law that makes it illegal to “burn, mutilate or otherwise insult the national flag ... in circumstances which are calculated or likely to show disrespect ...or to bring (it) into disrepute.”

“There are certain things that people do that are tantamount to abuse and disrespect of the national flag,” she said.

The law is silent about what constitutes “disrespect,” giving authorities an opportunity to interpret it to their convenience.

Mawarire — known for spearheading #ThisFlag movement while draping the flag on his body — said it is heart-breaking that the promise of a bright future, which is the flag, had been taken away.

“Everything on that flag speaks about what Zimbabwe should be like, the green, the yellow, the white, the black, all of it is a symbol of promise in terms of what our prosperity should be like, what our freedoms should be like, it’s all told in that flag. And yet that flag has become the biggest symbol of oppression in Zimbabwe,” he told the Daily News on Sunday.

“As Zimbabweans we are not allowed to carry our own flag, what a shame. What nation under this earth prohibits its citizens from carrying or from owning their national flag? And that’s what makes this independence this year something to think deeply about in terms of the freedoms that we have as Zimbabweans.

“But more than anything else, what is done to us today in terms of the prohibition to carry our flag, the prohibition to identify ourselves with our flag, it speaks of the future; it speaks about how far and how deep this government we have is committed to oppressing us and to refusing us the basic rights that every Zimbabwean should have.”

Mawarire was last arrested and charged with among other things using the flag inappropriately, together with another pastor, Phillip Mugadza who was acquitted of the charge.

“It is also again a rallying point for every Zimbabwean to realise that if we do not keep standing up, if we do not keep raising our voices against injustice, our children are going to suffer and so that is the most embarrassing thing that I have seen a nation do to its people it’s to bar its citizens from the story that they own.

“But we are committed, I am committed to continuing to fight for the narrative that is for my life and my children and the future of our nation,” Mawarire said.

Advocate Fadzayi Mahere said under Section 67 of the Constitution, Zimbabweans had the right to show love for their country.

“I think it’s sad that one political party has reserved for itself the right to be passionate and patriotic about Zimbabwe. Every citizen must be allowed the freedom to love their country but challenge the government,” she said

#Tajamuka leader Promise Mkwananzi said Zimbabweans had been deprived not just of economic prosperity but also of their national symbol.

“It’s a symbol of patriotism but the Zanu PF government which claims to have fought for independence deprives the people their sovereign right to use their flag,” Mkwananzi said.

“We are not going to allow our national emblem and symbols to be taken away by a power-hungry criminal regime. The Zanu PF government have reserved all the three objectives of the liberation struggle.”

Legal expert Alex Magaisa said he is not surprised that the Zanu PF government has moved to invoke the existing Flag Act legislation, hitherto unused, as a way of stopping citizens from using the national flag in their protests.

“Once again the government fails to attend to the causes of the protests and goes after the symptom,” he said, adding the legislation under which the government was acting was unconstitutional and should be challenged.

The national flag legislation gives arbitrary powers to the president, creates vague, ambiguous and indeterminate offences over the use or application of the national flag and imposes penalties that are excessive and disproportionate to the said offences. The law does not articulate the circumstances under which they would be committing an offence or acting lawfully. It leaves arbitrary powers in the hands of the authorities. For this reason the law does not protect citizens but rather, it imperils them.”

He said the latest move shows the Zimbabwean government’s ridiculous determination to create a police State.

The proscription of the national flag has extended to arms of government. Pandemonium broke out in the National assembly last year after police stormed the National Assembly and roughed up opposition legislators in a bizarre attempt to eject an MDC MP, Costa Machingauta, for wearing a jacket adorned in the national flag colours. The lawmaker was wearing a jacket in the green, gold, red and black colours of the national flag.

Opposition MDC legislator for Mutasa Central, Trevor Saruwaka was barred from joining the traditional procession during the official opening of Parliament for wearing the same national flag jacket.

In a statement, Saruwaka whose ban remains effective and Parliament security has told him they would not allow him in the National Assembly until he is cleared by Speaker of the House Jacob Mudenda, has challenged the ban in court, and eagerly awaits a determination.

“My prayer is that the High Court is going to treat the matter with the urgency it deserves. So far, their appetite to set down the matter is very low and this clear violation of the country’s Constitution and abuse of standing rules and orders of Parliament by the speaker must be stopped,” Saruwaka charged.

“If MPs don’t enjoy rights enshrined in the Constitution in Parliament what chances are there that the people of Muponda Village in Mutasa Central will enjoy them? Nil,” he said, describing the development as “a sad chapter in the in the lives of all free thinking Zimbabweans”.

“I am shocked because I didn’t know it’s a criminal offense to be patriotic,” Saruwaka said.

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